Nicolas and I exchanged text messages from nearby islands during our holidays, he on Amorgos and I on Patmos. There were usually only a pair or two them a day, usually in the morning or late afternoon, a couplet of introit and missio that bracketed the day.
What I wanted to share with Nicolas couldn’t fit in a few antiphonal texts, but I knew there’d be time to share stories once we met up again in the city. It was enough that I heard his voice, even if disembodied and refigured in tiny pixels on a tiny screen. I know the value of solitude, and respect his as much as I prize mine. This appreciation of each other’s privacy was one reason, rendered more unequivocal by Nicolas’s dislike of talking on a mobile phone, that I didn’t call.
I found myself looking forward to his messages. They marked my day, as prime and vespers do for a monk. As one might expect from a craftsman of words, his were beautifully written, urbane and witty, resonant with feeling, and showed no sign of the strain of encapsulating an experience or feeling within the confines of so few characters. Mine, on the other hand, often seemed to me half-complete, interrupted. Yet even Nicolas’s messages were perforce suggestive rather than comprehensive, the few but (I am sure) carefully selected elements of an event or place or memory serving to engage me, the reader, in an act of interpretative elaboration.
It was through this compact and imperfect medium that Nicolas and I had our first unpleasant disagreement. Of course Nicolas and I have disagreed about things before, films and exhibitions and politics and the like, but those served as impetus for further conversation, a burrowing into a deeper understanding. They were the disagreements between friends that Hollinghurst has said are really agreements in a more exciting key.
This was different, at least for me. It began with a pair of single quotation marks in a text message about a book of all things, two tiny pins of virtual ink that like the pincers of a mite left a bite that kept smarting for days (though I must say there was nothing mean or hurtful in the message itself).
I had texted Nicolas to thank him for steering me to W.G. Sebald’s work. He had suggested I look for his novels when in Berlin, and I had returned to Athens with a copy of Die Ausgewanderten. I began to read it on the island and quickly became engrossed in these tales of four emigrants. I wanted to share this enthusiasm with Nicolas and wrote him that I was relishing the book. He texted back and said, “glad you are ‘enjoying’ Sebald”.
Nicolas’s emails and text messages are copiously annotated with an array of signs that function, say, to emphasize a phrase or mark a scherzo or introduce a note of self-deprecation. Studded with slashes and emoticons and ellipses, line breaks and dashes, his texts are at the same time textural, a palimpsest of the message itself overlaid with instructions on how to read it more fully. So the single quotation lines around “enjoy’ was a message in itself. In another context, these marks would serve as an ersatz subjunctive of distance, a way of saying that I am simply reporting what has been stated but have no way of ascertaining its veracity or, taking it one step further, don’t share this view at all, or yet further, “how could you ever even think that, you drooling idiot”?
The inclusion of the quotation marks was the work of an editor, I felt, not a friend, not as sarcastic as interpolating a [sic] in the citation but almost. It annulled the first part of the sentence, “Glad”, since it was clear he wasn’t actually glad but… what? Disappointed? Put off? Which made me wonder, why he didn’t just say it. And so I texted him back, asking “why the quotation marks,” though I suspected why. Nicolas replied that there was something ‘indecent’ about enjoying Sebald.
In a way, he was right. How could one relish these elegiac tales of men, wounded in soul, haunted by loss, exiled to their hopelessness? But no one likes to be scolded, especially by a friend, however much one needs to be at times. It disturbs the sense of equality that is an integral component of friendship, even when, as is often the case, it is an equality by tacit mutual convention alone; one always brings more to the friendship than the other (though the two may alternate in this role), one is usually more talented at friendship than the other. Still, for the friendship to continue both need to ascribe to and defend the appearance of equality, especially when disagreeing.
This is not to say that at times a friend may not be a teacher, confessor, mentor or father to you. Still, indecency is a weighty word, pointing as it does to an overstepping of the conventions of civilized behavior that is profoundly disturbing to others. It is laughing at a funeral or groping someone on a crowded subway. Nicolas’s reference to my ‘indecency’—although his sentence was wholly impersonal, he was, after all, talking about my reading—hurt. It pained me that he could think me capable of indecency. I recognize that I am at times guilty of intellectual frivolity, but indecency?
There are works of art that I would find it indecent to take pleasure in, the films and books and paintings of sadistic dystopias and apocalypse, the tales of genocide and torture, works such as The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Little’s fictional memoir of an ex-Nazi mass murderer.
For me, however, Sebald’s Emigrants is not such a book. Granted, they are stories of loss but they are not without hope. They could even be seen as tales of a special kind of salvation. In reconstructing and narrating the histories of these men, Sebald saves these four emigrants not from dying but from being forgotten. Their histories, or elements thereof, are preserved in the reminiscences of surviving friends and the last remaining relatives, and captured in sketches and newspaper articles and vague, uncaptioned photographs. There is humor in these stories and acts of devotion, too. The men that emerge from these tales, Paul and Ambros at least, I am glad I came to know: one the gifted teacher, the other, a man who becomes a valet to his aristocratic lover so that the two of them can be together. But Nicolas was not entirely wrong. The lives of these men are marked by the trauma of the Holocaust. If reading was not an indecent pleasure, neither was it innocent.
Nicolas would say I’m overreacting, reading too much into his comment, conjuring intent in a way that did just as much disservice to our friendship. And in the end he’d be right: Nicolas was being mean or sarcastic; on the contrary, I imagine it would pain him to know that he had caused me even this moment of discomfort. Or perhaps that I had caused myself, for I realize now that the intensity of my reaction was in exact proportion to my desire to be worthy of this very special friendship.
Image: Photograph by Kristen Heldmann, by permission of the photographer